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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rudd, Wong on target for disaster by Simon Butler

In the lead up to the November 2007 Federal elections, ALP leader Kevin Rudd assured voters that his party took climate change seriously and would follow a very different path from that of the anti-environmental Howard government.

We now know he was lying. After 12 months of delay, inaction and ceaseless rhetoric, the Rudd government finally announced its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets on December 15. The targets are not simply disappointing. They are disastrous and appalling. The 5% reductions by 2020 announced by climate change minister Penny Wong fall woefully short of the cuts urged by the world’s leading climate scientists. It also confirms that Australia continues to play the dishonorable role, inherited from the Howard government, of an international climate pariah.

The continuity between the climate change policies of the Howard and Rudd governments was approvingly emphasised by an editorial in the Murdoch-owned Australian on December 9. Anticipating the small emissions cuts to be proposed, the editorial gloated: “As The Australian has repeatedly said, the Rudd Government’s position is largely consistent with what has been proposed by the Opposition. It is little different, rhetoric aside, from what John Howard would have done, had he retained office.”

The same article fatuously attacked a Sydney Morning Herald editorial of the previous day for having “been more at home in Green Left Weekly than a mainstream paper”. If only that was true. While the SMH did criticise the Rudd government for its “compromise, back pedalling and political expediency”, it fell short of demanding the Rudd government adopt emissions targets that accord with the actual climate science — as GLW does. Ignoring climate emergency The centrepiece of the Rudd government’s climate policy is the carbon trading emissions scheme.

This scheme, under which some of Australia’s biggest polluters are provided with free and/or tax-deductible carbon credits, is highly unlikely to achieve even the tiny reductions targets set by Rudd and Wong. A very similar scheme adopted some years ago by the European Union has not resulted in any greenhouse gas reductions at all. However, financial speculators made fortunes in the newly created “carbon market” through buying and selling the “right to pollute”. However, even if carbon trading resulted in the government’s 5% target being reached, the cuts would still be entirely inadequate to attain the government’s preferred long-term goal of stabilising atmospheric concentration of carbon at 450 parts per million. A recent paper published by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society has calculated that in order to stabilise carbon in the atmosphere at 450ppm, the world’s emissions are required to peak no later than 2015.

Subsequently, reductions would need to proceed at a minimum of 6%-8% annually. The 5% by 2020 target has no hope of success. Worst of all, 450ppm is itself an alarmingly dangerous target that would almost certainly lead to runaway climate change. British economist Nicholas Stern warned in a 2006 report commissioned for the Blair government that 450ppm has a 78% change of exceeding a 2° average increase from pre-industrial temperatures. Furthermore, the Stern report’s conclusions are now widely acknowledged to be based on outdated research and very probably understate the dangers.

As little as 2° warming will still push the planet far past crucial climate tipping points where the planet will begin to warm itself — leading to catastrophic and unpredictable consequences. Some of these tipping points include: • the melting of the Arctic ice caps, reducing the amount of sunlight reflected by the ice back into space, thereby increasing warming and locking in further melting;

• the warming of the oceans, resulting in increased ocean acidification, the dramatic loss of marine life and coral reefs and a further reduction in the amount of atmospheric carbon absorbed by the oceans, thereby locking in further warming;

• the melting of the Arctic permafrost that holds beneath the frozen ground up to double the amount of carbon currently present in the atmosphere. If the permafrost melts, the huge amounts of methane gas released will push global warming to uncontainable levels. These problems are no longer something that we will face sometime in the future. Climate scientists have observed, and reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals, that polar ice cap melt, ocean warming and methane release from the Arctic permafrost is already underway. These climate tipping-points are being approached now, even though the world’s temperature increase currently sits at only 0.8° above pre-industrial levels.

It is for this reason that climate scientist James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has argued we face a “planetary emergency” and called for reducing atmospheric carbon at 300-325ppm as rapidly as possible. Government strategy Despite the irrefutable evidence pointing to a climate emergency, the Rudd government intends justify its business as usual course by positioning itself as though it is taking a responsible path — the middle ground between contending sides in the climate debate. A “Climate Alert” paper circulated by Australian campaigners David Spratt and Damian Lawson on December 12 pointed out that “Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong will defend their disastrous targets by saying they are being criticised by ’both sides’ of the debate and therefore they have got it right”.

They drew attention to Rudd’s justification of the government’s climate policy to the December 11 7.30 Report as a typical example: “And I’m sure when this [government carbon policy] is delivered, early next week, we’ll get attacked from the left, from the right, we’ll get attacked by various radical green groups saying that we haven’t gone far enough because we haven’t closed down the coal industry by next Thursday … We’ll be attacked from the far right and by various business groups, I suppose, and certainly the Liberal Party, for doing anything at all. “And we’ll be attacked by extreme green groups for not taking the most radical course of action … We intend to steer a balanced course.”

But in response to this Spratt and Lawson argued: “Climate targets must be set according to the scientific imperatives, and putting them through a political filter can only imperil the planet. The government does not understand that you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry and biology that determine our climate system.”

The other argument the government will rely on heavily is that they cannot move any faster to reduce emissions without a binding international agreement having first been reached. The astounding cynicism of this claim has become apparent in the wake of the international climate change conference in held in the Polish city of Poznan over December 1-12. There, the Australian government helped to sabotage any hope of such an international agreement!

The Australian delegation to Poznan chaired a so-called “negotiating bloc” of some of the largest polluting nations, including the US, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Canada. The bloc was dedicated to scuttling agreement on a proposed 25%-40% emissions reduction by 2020. Unfortunately, they were successful. The wrecking operation run at the conference by Australia and other wealthy countries has been condemned by representatives of Third World nations and environmental groups.

On December 13, Webindia123.com reported the assessment of Kim Carstensen from the World Wildlife Fund Global Climate Initiative, who summed up the Poznan conference as a major missed opportunity to stop climate change: “A passive EU, in effect, joined the US as the second lame duck in the Poznan pond, while Canada, Japan, Russia, Australia and Saudi Arabia openly undermined progress”.

“These countries need to get serious about greening their economies and they need to provide know-how, funding and technology to developing countries. Otherwise, any prospects for a new global climate treaty will remain dim”, Carstensen said. From here, the only response possible is for the grassroots environment movement to reorganise and campaign for real climate change policies based on science — rather than corporate profits.

A strategy based on lobbying the government, or appealing to their conscience, can have no hope of success. The Rudd government has now clearly declared its hand. Only sustained, mass pressure in the form of a broad climate justice movement can win the battle for a rational climate policy. Scores of environmental groups have sprung up across the country over the past few years. Localised actions and campaigning by these groups needs to be complemented by stronger national networks and coordination. The Climate Action Summit planned from January 31 to February 3 in Canberra may provide an opportunity for the movement to reconstitute and organise itself to take on a government determined to sacrifice a safe climate to please big business.

The climate change movement also has a very special role and responsibility to tell the truth about the threat climate change poses to people and planet — the truth that the mainstream politicians and media consistently work to conceal.

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #777 3 December 2008.

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